During the year 2000, were making our way around
Virginia, each issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the
heart of electric co-op country. On this years eighth stop, well be...
Down Home in Chincoteague by Jane E. Daisey, Contributing Writer
Download in PDF Format This Eastern Shore island offers treasures galore, from delicious seafood to its
world-famous pony penning.
"If once you have slept on an island youll never be quite the same."
The residents of Chincoteague Island, nestled between Virginias Eastern Shore
peninsula on the west and the barrier island of Assateague on the east, understand the
meaning of this quote from Rachel Fields poem. Surrounded by the sparkling waters of
Chincoteague Bay and Assateague channel, the island is home to about 3,500 full-time
residents, and thousands more visit this resort town annually.
Memorial Park views Assateague Channel and Island.
Its lighthouse, built in 1867, stands 142-feet high and is open for tours on selected
Chincoteague boasts a rich history of a resilient people who lived off the land,
braved the harsh elements, and became fiercely independent. Its settlers faced isolation
from the mainland, and fierce storms like the 1821 hurricane and tidal wave that crossed
Assateague Island to engulf Chincoteague. Hurricanes in 1933 and 1936 also flooded the
island. These early hardships strengthened the villagers and created a strong sense of
survival and camaraderie that has been passed down through the generations.
In 1671 the first white settlers laid claim to the island, which was used as a
livestock range for the next century and a half. Villagers made a living farming and
raising cattle and sheep. By the mid-1800s seafood was the main source of income. Northern
cities were major markets for the famous Chincoteague oysters, influencing islanders to
vote in 1861 not to secede from the Union. By the early 1900s not only oysters, but clams,
crabs and fish were also part of the seafood industry. Sport fishing provided some with
work, while others hunted and marketed wildfowl.
A Natural for Decoys
Jay Cherrix stands in his decoy shop in front of a pony he carved for fun.
His unique carvings include shorebirds and fish, and range from primitive working decoys
to refined pieces that resemble modern sculpture.
The interest in hunting led some locals to earn a good living carving decoys to
be used in their expeditions or to be sold to hunt clubs. Ira Hudson made his mark as a
boat builder and decoy carver, becoming one of Chincoteagues most famous artists.
His grandson Jay Cherrix says he was a humble man who would be embarrassed to know
that his carvings have sold for as much as $80,000. In the early days, he sold them for
only a few dollars per dozen.
Today, Jay and many others earn their income carving decoys that are decorative only
and will never be used for hunting. Jay combines the skills of his father, who had been a
boat captain, and his grandfather. He runs "Tidewater Expeditions," featuring
morning and evening kayak tours, and a quaint decoy-carving shop called "A Work of
Art." He says he feels blessed to work at something he loves every day of his life,
surrounded by the beauty of his home.
The beautiful Christ United Methodist Church was
built in 1922 by Italian stone masons. It is one of six churches on the island.
In 1918, native John B. Whealton Jr. pursued his dream of building a road to
connect the island with the mainland. He formed the Chincoteague Toll Road and Bridge
Company and, after years of hard work, the road and its six bridges (including a swing
bridge as you reach the island) were opened with much ceremony in November of 1922. The
toll has since been removed and the road now bears the name John B. Whealton Jr. Memorial
Causeway, in honor of the native son who had the vision to end the islands isolation
from its neighbors.
Stones bearing the dates 1930 and 1957 mark the
growth of the Chincoteague Fire Department building on Main Street.
In 1920 and again in 1924, Chincoteague suffered disastrous fires that destroyed
several of the largest and most important buildings in the town, as well as many homes.
The men organized the existing fire brigade into a larger and better volunteer fire
company. In order to help, the women formed the Ladies Auxiliary in 1924. At the first
meeting, they decided to have an annual pony penning, rounding up the ponies on Assateague
Island and swimming them across the channel to Chincoteague to be sold at auction. Over
the years, the fire department added a carnival to the pony penning activities. In 1946
author Marguerite Henry came to the island, attended the pony penning, and bought a pony
for herself. Her book Misty of Chincoteague was based on the experience and became
a classic in childrens literature. With the release of a movie version in 1960, the
island and its annual pony penning became famous. The pony swim and auction, along with
the carnival, has provided all the funding for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company
through the years. The event is held the last Wednesday and Thursday in July, with the
carnival running for that entire week, as well as every Friday and Saturday in July.
Its a tradition that locals eagerly anticipate. Relatives living away come home to
enjoy the festivities; its like one big homecoming. This year marked the
carnivals 75th anniversary, and a spectacular fireworks display was held on the last
night to celebrate the platinum anniversary.
The volunteer firemen and ladies of the auxiliary give generously of their time, energy
and resources throughout the year serving the community as firefighters, emergency medical
personnel, and ambulance drivers. Pete and Ellen Richardson have served together
for over 35 years, and say theyve enjoyed working with and helping their friends and
Paving the Way for Tourism
The aging swing bridge crosses the channel as you
approach the island and is soon to be replaced by a modern structure.
By 1960 the seafood industry was declining and many of the young people were
leaving to find jobs elsewhere. Some citizens thought of expanding the small tourist
industry that existed. Leaders such as Robert N. Reed, Chincoteague mayor from 1949 to
1963, worked tirelessly to gain approval to construct a bridge from Chincoteague to
Assateague Island, location of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague
Island National Seashore. This bridge opened in September of 1962, and literally paved the
way for Chincoteagues modern tourist industry.
Ralph Daisey and his wife Lois were working at the NASA base on the mainland
when a co-worker dared him to find something to sell to the tourists, if they came. He
says her words stuck in his mind. They opened PonyTails, the islands first souvenir
shop in 1965, featuring homemade saltwater taffy and copper-kettle fudge. The business
thrived and they left their jobs with NASA to run it full-time. Lois says, "We have
tried to be a family business in every sense of the word, never selling anything in the
shop we wouldnt want sold to our own children or grandchildren. Weve never
been open for business on Sunday; we wanted that day for family activities and church
Countless other natives opened a myriad of businesses to serve the tourists, adding to
the economy, increasing the tax base, and providing youth and adults with jobs. The
entrepreneurial spirit is still alive as new and unique ventures continue to start.
The annual pony penning, which has provided
funding for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company for years, is eagerly anticipated by
locals as one big homecoming.
While some prepared for the future, other citizens worked hard to preserve the
islands past. Eight island women raised money and did extensive research to create
the Oyster and Maritime Museum, which opened in 1972, preserving the history of the
seafood industry, and that of the Assateague Lighthouse. A citizens group restored the
Wallace Jester Barber Shop, one of the oldest frame commercial buildings in town, and
opened it in 1995 as the Chincoteague Island Library. It is operated by volunteers and
funded by contributions.
Today a new generation is serving to improve their home. Mayor Jack Tarr, Town
Manager Jim West, and Public Works Director Jay W. Jeffries have lived on
the island all their lives. Jack owns his own electrical contracting business with partner
and native Dale Holston. Jim previously served as Public Works Director for 10
years. Jay was a teacher at Chincoteague High School until his recent appointment with the
Many Improvements Made
Town Manager Jim West, Public Works Director Jay
W. Jeffries, and Mayor Jack Tarr (l to r) all work to improve their native community.
Jim says the town has made many improvements in the last 10 years: the road and
drainage systems have been vastly improved; the Curtis Merritt Harbor has opened on the
south end of the island; and the town has its own 911 system that also serves Assateague
Island. A large community complex was built in 1996, housing the town offices, meeting
rooms, and the police department. It includes a beautiful community center, available for
rent, with space for meetings, trade shows, concerts, high school proms, and graduation
ceremonies. A special source of pride is the recently improved Memorial Park. Situated on
the shores of Assateague Channel, it features a fishing pier, boat launch, pavilion,
picnic tables and grills, modern playground equipment, tennis and basketball courts, and a
baseball field. This pristine park is a combined effort of the town government and many
citizen volunteers, and serves its community well.
In spite of tremendous growth and development, Chincoteague Island retains its quaint
beauty, community spirit, and peacefulness. There is something special about living here,
with the sound of waves lapping at the shoreline, the smell of salt in the air, the
spectacular sunsets over the water, and the steady rhythm of the lighthouse beam at night.
Nine-year-old Lindsay Clark, who describes life on an island in the book series
Kids in Their Communities, sums it up when she says, "I hope I always live on
If You Go...
(Top) Outside the Island Roxy Theater, a visitor
kneels to look at Mistys hoofprints, placed in the cement during the East Coast
premiere of the movie in 1960.
(Bottom) The Oyster and Maritime Museum is home to the historic lens used in
the Assateague lighthouse from 1867 to 1961.
Chincoteague Island offers a wide range of accommodations, restaurants, and
activities to suit all ages and interests. Make reservations well in advance if you plan
to visit during the height of the tourist season, from June through Labor Day.
For information and a list of annual events, festivals, and shows, contact the Chincoteague
Chamber of Commerce by mail at P.O. Box 258, Chincoteague, VA 23336, by phone at
757-336-6161, or visit their Web site at www.chincoteaguechamber.com .
For conferences, reunions, weddings, etc., contact The Chincoteague Center at
P.O. Box 52, Chincoteague, VA 23336, phone 757-336-0614, fax 757-336-0615, or at www.chincoteague.org.
Stay at family campgrounds, rental cottages, motels, or bed & breakfasts. A small
sample includes Toms Cove Family Campground, with fishing piers, a marina,
wooded sites, and a recreation center and store (757-336-6498), Uncle Joes Cabins
(757-336-5107), Islands Pride Cottages (757-336-6345), Island Motor Inn,
an all-waterfront resort featuring a world-class weight and exercise facility overlooking
(Top) Volunteers Harriet Lonergan and Dorothy
Duthy talk with visitors at the island library.
(Bottom) One of several bed and breakfasts on the island, The Channel Bass
Inn is a building with a long history as an inn and restaurant.
(757-336-3141), The Refuge Motor Inn (757-336-5511), The
Channel Bass Inn (1-800-221-5620), and The Watson House B&B
The island is famous for its fresh seafood and offers a variety of dining experiences. Capt.
Fishs Steaming Wharf is an open-air deck restaurant (757-336-5528). Pony
Pines Restaurant (757-336-9746) and A.J.s on the Creek
(757-336-5888) are also popular.
Fun activities for the family include: miniature golf, bike rentals, boat rentals, ice
cream parlors, charter boat fishing, parasailing, cruises around the island, and a movie
Swim and surf fish at Assateague Island National Seashore. On the way
to the island, stop at the NASA Visitor Center to enjoy hands-on displays
and special programs for children.
Adults can enjoy antique shops, art galleries, and a variety of unique shops and
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge offers a visitors center,
walking and biking trails, and year-round bird-watching opportunities.